Southwestern College Launches Jag Kitchen Food Pantry


Child Development Center Director Patricia Bartow inside the Jag Kitchen Food Pantry.
Child Development Center Director Patricia Bartow inside the Jag Kitchen Food Pantry.

A few years ago, Child Development Center Director Patricia Bartow noticed some disturbing signs in some of her students. They were sluggish, sleepy, tired and unenthused, and in a heartbeat, she knew what was wrong: They were hungry.

To Bartow, this wasn’t just a hunch or guess. The telltale signs she saw in her students felt awfully too familiar to her.

“When I was a Southwestern College student 30 years ago, I was suffering from food insecurity,” Bartow said. “I wasn’t homeless but I was living in a motel. Did I look homeless? No, because I would give up food for other things.”

When she was a Child Development student, Bartow herself faced many challenges. Like many other Southwestern College students, she was working a low-wage job, taking care of her family and still had to show up to school every day. Eating wasn’t always at the top of her priorities.

“When I see folks walk onto this campus, I know what they can come with,” she said.

So for the past three years, Bartow sought the help of the Associated Students Organization (ASO), the Family Studies Department and other members of the Child Development Center to come together and create the Food Insecurity Planning Committee with the purpose of creating a food pantry to help students like hers.

Now, with the culmination of many people’s efforts and a donation drive that was kicked off at the August Governing Board meeting, the new Jag Kitchen Food Pantry was unveiled at a ceremonial ribbon cutting on Sept. 13. Joining Bartow behind the ribbon were Governing Board Member Humberto Peraza, Jr., Interim Superintendent/President Robert Deegan, Assemblymember Shirley Weber, Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, ASO President Mona Dibas, Student Activities/Development Director Brett Robertson and Jim Floros, the president and CEO of the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank.

The Jag Kitchen Food Pantry in room 554 will officially open this fall semester after it finalizes staffing and a partnership with the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank, which also donated a pallet of fresh food to kick-off the pantry’s soft opening. Information on what’s available for students, how they can utilize it and what donations the pantry needs can be found on its website. Monetary donations to the Jag Kitchen can be made through the Southwestern College Foundation’s secure giving website.

Bartow had seen so many amazing programs offered at Southwestern College to help students succeed, including Extended Opportunity Program and Services, Puente and countless others, but she still kept seeing a need in a lot of her students.

“We seem to focus on a lot of development for programs as far as curriculum or academic goals, but in the South Bay we need to stop and make sure students’ primary needs are also being met,” Bartow said.

The signs Bartow saw in her classrooms really stayed with her, so much so that it made her wonder about other students she may not interact with throughout Southwestern College. So she sent out a campuswide survey to students to see who else may be facing these challenges. The findings, she said, were both eye-opening and compelling. Of the students surveyed:

  • More than 80 percent said they’ve experienced food insecurity
  • Most students believe that food insecurity is an issue for others
  • Many said they’ve opted to eat cheaper, less nutritious food or skip meals altogether.

One student in the survey said, “I’m an unemployed, single mom and I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I sometimes don’t have enough, but I try to do what I can, so I pray a pantry opens up soon.”

Another student, “Some days I don’t have money to buy a bottle of water.”

Those types of comments weren’t uncommon. Other students, who maybe weren’t in such dire straits, praised the idea of starting a food pantry so that their classmates wouldn’t have to go hungry.

This quickly began driving the conversation and the mission of the Jag Kitchen Food Pantry, including a push to offer healthy and high-energy foods, suggestions for where it should be and judgement-free ways for students to utilize it.

“It wasn’t just what we thought anymore,” Bartow said. “It’s what people needed and wanted.”

One of the members of the Food Insecurity Planning Committee is Jenny Sabas, who has helped coordinate the efforts to launch the Jag Kitchen and its staffing. Sabas, who is also an adjunct professor in the Family Studies Department and advisor to the Child Development club, has heard many stories of students facing food insecurity.

“We had one student who said she wasn’t even concerned about her classes, she was concerned about what she was going to eat over the weekend,” Sabas said. “For me, it’s important to encourage students’ success and this is one less thing they’ll need to worry about.”

In her research, Bartow found that food insecurity is an issue and a problem that exists across the country, and a growing number of colleges and universities are creating food pantries to address it. While that served as a good jumping-off point for what the Jag Kitchen would become, the survey and input from the campus community shaped how to best serve the South Bay and the Southwestern College community.

“This population if filled with folks that have barriers,” Bartow said. “They’re students who take hours to come to our campus, they have to get on a bus, figure out child care, this and that.”

Food, she said, might be the last thing on their mind, like it was for her when she was a student.

“It’s a fundamental right that every human being should have access to food,” Bartow said. “Maybe they’ll get paid in two days and what we give them lets them hang on for those two days.”